VANCOUVER, Wash. – Keegan Dittmer hurried home from his unglamorous fast-food job and disappeared into the typically chaotic bedroom of a 17-year-old high school junior, where he began his self-transformation into the glamorous and composed Wanda Faame.
Surrounded by memorabilia from a childhood that isn’t yet over – from Winnie the Pooh to Doctor Who – Dittmer sat at a vanity below his bunk bed and applied glue, powder, liner, shadow and other accoutrements of a sexy, sophisticated adult woman. When he emerged to show off for his mother, Tiffany Turnquist, she diplomatically wondered about his unkept hair but otherwise gave him the thumbs-up.
“He wears more makeup than I do,” said Turnquist, laughing. She has always been tomboyish herself, she said, and now anchors a household awash in testosterone. At last, she joked, there’s someone in the family she can talk to about makeup and other girly stuff. “Way to go, Keegan,” she teased.
When her son was about 12 years old, he tested a confession on her, venturing that he might be “a quarter gay.” (Years later he mused, “That’s internalized homophobia for you.”)
“You sure that’s all?” was Mom’s comeback. It wasn’t surprising news, Turnquist said. “I wish I could say the whole extended family is OK with it,” she added. “There’s been some backlash.”
By the time he was in high school, dedicated thespian Dittmer had discovered the “hilarious and amazing” world of drag performance via the TV show “Ru Paul’s Drag Race.” That Halloween, he went trick-or-treating as Miss Coco Peru, a famous L.A. drag queen; when he assumed the role of a witness in a mock trial exercise at school, he played the part as a woman.
“He loves to show off,” Turnquist said in late March, as a Columbian crew tailed Dittmer for hours. “He loves this. He loves being the center of attention.”
About a year ago, Dittmer discovered that Renegades Bar and Grill, a downtown Vancouver bar, hosts the occasional Sunday drag show. He attended something called a Closet Ball, not sure what would happen. He got completely made over, danced for the crowd – and was shocked to win the title Miss Interstate Bridge 2017-18.
“I was nervous I was going to mess up,” he said, and he was nervous in general: “What is this child doing?”
Doubt disappeared when he stepped on stage. “When I was in full regalia, all the anxiety and nerves went away,” he said. “I felt confidence I hadn’t felt in myself before. I knew I wanted to continue exploring this aspect of my life I hadn’t explored before.”
Dittmer’s first stop in late March was Renegades Bar and Grill, which absorbed the fledgling local drag scene last year after the Eagles Lodge next door closed. March 25 was set as the next Miss Interstate Bridge Pageant and Dittmer, dolled up as Wanda Faame, was ready to surrender his tiara – but no one competed for his title. The tiara returned to a Styrofoam head in Dittmer’s bedroom that he nicknamed Styrone.
A half-dozen performers did lip-synch and dance for a friendly audience that night at Renegades. The overall tone was comedically raunchy in the nicest possible way; even at its raciest, the show would barely garner an “R” rating at the movies. But the 17-year-old Dittmer was only allowed to set foot in the front of the room, not the back near the bar. “Always jokes about sex and booze,” he muttered, sitting alone as the show proceeded – until his father, Christopher Dittmer, arrived to show his support.
“This is new to some people, but it’s been going on forever,” Christopher Dittmer said. “It’s an art.”
As the performers stepped on stage or slithered through the crowd, they accepted dollars for charity. The Renegades show is hosted by the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Rain Tree Empire, a social group that used to host living-room drag shows in Vancouver long before it was possible to do so in public. When the AIDS crisis of the 1980s hit, the Rain Tree Empire added charity to its mission.
At 43 years old, the Rain Tree Empire is “the oldest LGBTQ organization in Southwest Washington,” said Bradford Williams, who teaches graphic design at Columbia River High School and was running the Renegades sound board that night. Williams said the group’s fundraising target is always $10,000 a year for beneficiaries like scholarship funds for gay youth and Martha’s Pantry, Clark County’s food bank for people with HIV/AIDS.
The Rain Tree Empire is part of a nationwide network of imperial courts, Dittmer said he was “astonished” to learn.
While most Renegades performers wore eye-catching outfits – from Tina Louise Sapphire Dior’s shimmering red gown to Shania Dumaur’s short, tight, off-the-shoulder black dress – not everyone adopted a larger-than-life persona. One fellow rose in standard street clothes to lip synch a heartfelt song of love and glory.
The next stop for Dittmer was Qwerky, the show he launched at downtown’s Brickhouse Bar and Grill. The International Bacchalaureate program at River requires a creative, service-oriented leadership project; what could be better, Dittmer thought, than a charity drag show to benefit gay youth, starring gay youth like himself?
“Brickhouse was really enthusiastic,” he said. “They’ve been great partners.” Last year saw a Halloween-themed kickoff, he said, and the show has been going strong since – despite a few complications around legal and logistical matters. Ironically enough, the Brickhouse show is open to all-ages performers, but not an all-ages audience. It doesn’t get going until 9:30 p.m. on the last Sunday of the month.
That’s why Dittmer’s 14-year-old friend Dan Abell performed early: he had to get home. Abell doesn’t adopt any outlandish persona as a performer, he said; that night, sporting a polka-dotted bow tie, Abell sang a romantic ballad with total confidence and sincerity. After Abell came Deja Vu Luptuous, 29, who belted out a couple of super-dramatic songs in super-dramatic style and a soaring, professional voice. Vu Luptuous said performance is one of their passions (along with social justice and housing equity), and is exploring drag as a professional career.
“I feel more beautiful and more exact in my identity” when doing drag, Vu Luptuous said – adding that, partially due to Portland’s rising prices, Vancouver’s downtown scene gets quirkier all the time. “Restaurants, shows, musical things going on,” they informed the crowd. “Every single day I see more lesbians and different people in downtown Vancouver. Portland is coming! Little Vantucky might get lucky!”
Dittmer’s Qwerky show at Brickhouse tasted less like the grown-up, comedic cabaret of Renegades and more like an artsy, angsty student project: technically rough around the edges, but driven by deeply serious, soul-expressing purpose.
“I did not raise you to go out there with your dress half-unzipped,” Turnquist declared, helping her son with his wardrobe.
Dittmer switched costumes several times that evening. Starting with an elegant Japanese kimono, his “big reveal” was a complicated, handmade black-tie-and-laced-corset creation he described as a “steampunky combination of 1920s Hollywood glam and 1950s housewife.” Next up, a cheery red dress with polka-dotted stripes; and stealing the show in the end was a slinky, form-fitting, scarlet wrap and a rainbow wig – all anchored by 6.6-inch heels. When Dittmer wasn’t performing, he was racing around making sure other queens were cued up.
“As a parent, you always worry, no matter what; and if you have a gay child, you worry even more” about bullying and worse, Turnquist said. “But his confidence is soaring.”
Dittmer said his days of getting bullied at school are over because he carries himself with complete confidence now.
“I love performing,” he said. “It’s the thrill of the moment. I’m in control, and all eyes are on me. It’s like, this is my room.”
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